Acquistion of reading and writing skills in adult migrants with differing levels of literacy

Project management

Thomas Studer


(Santi Guerrero Calle research manager till August 2021)
(Romeo Wasmer research assistant till January 2022)

01.2021 - 12.2023
Competences, Migration, Acquisition

Comparatively little research has been conducted on how adult migrants – both those with low literacy skills (non-literates) and those who have competence in a non-Latin alphabet (non-roman alphabet literates) – acquire reading and writing skills, and scholarly findings on the subject are correspondingly sparse. This condition is all the more surprising as specialist discourse on the topic of “literacy levels in adults” has long revealed that traditional differentiations between so-called “literacy types” (e.g. “preliterates”) contribute little to fostering literacy. Because empirical reviews and theoretical literature in the field are largely lacking, it is impossible to categorise and systematically compare the various “literacy types”, which in turn causes considerable problems in, for instance, planning measures to promote literacy, which generally focus on the duration of literacy training programmes.

Current practices in teaching reading and writing to persons with varying degrees of literacy in German as a second language are founded more in assumptions and general experience than on research-based principles. As a consequence, the methods for placing learners in language courses and classifying their “literacy type” are highly tenuous and often unreliable – and thus unhelpful for promoting language competence.

These considerations provide the backdrop for this project, which examines and describes typical processes in the acquisition of reading and writing skills in German as a second language and asks the following questions:

1. How do adult migrants with different literacy levels in German as a second language develop their reading and writing skills in the long term?

2. How can “literacy types” be defined in an empirically based, transparent, meaningful and pragmatic way?

Purpose – Expected results

The project aims to make an innovative contribution to research on literacy acquisition in adult migrants, with a view to using and further developing diagnostic testing principles and findings to benefit the target group. It is expected that the project findings will be used in practice as an effective and nuanced tool to differentiate between “literacy types” by means of an evidence-based description of the varying degrees of reading and writing skills (literacy levels) in adult migrants.

The findings from the project – which (necessarily) falls in the realm of basic research – may be suitable for use in a later applied-research project interested in developing and testing an accurate and viable diagnostic instrument for assessing learners with different literacy levels. Functionality and intended applications are the most important aspects when constructing the diagnostic instrument: it should enable valid statements to be made on how long individuals having different literacy levels need to attain the targeted literacy levels in German.